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Archive for the ‘Four Stars’ Category

William Kamkuamb is a 13-year-old boy in a farming village in the East African country of Malawi. The corrupt leadership of the nation not only exploits its citizenry, it undermines it. Survival for each family depends on the grain they grow. If a harvest fails, either due to a drought, or even due to a flood, there is simply not enough grain to go around to feed the families. Worse, the next crop is also in jeopardy because it takes grain to seed.

Families sit around their barrel of grain, count the number of of cups, divide how much they need by day, and they know how for how many days they can eat. If there is not enough to last until the next crop, they starve.

This is the kind of pressure we in the western world cannot even imagine.

William is a gifted student and very interested in applied physics. He has a reputation of being able to “fix things” around the village. His family has scraped up enough for a down payment for school. He attends as long as he can, before he gets kicked out for non-payment of tuition. But he is creative enough to talk his way into the library, where he finds a few books about electricity and generators.

He believes he can build a wind generator to drive the village water pump and start an irrigation system. Everyone thinks he is out of his mind, including his father.

But the boy’s spirit is steadfast, and he keeps his eyes on the goal. 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on an autobiographical story. It brings the hardships of lives of people in rural Africa into our living rooms, and after watching the movie, you will not think about that light switch on your wall quite the same way anymore. It is truly inspiring.

I have not read the book that this movie is based on, but I have a review of the book  written by one of my readers. Please check it out here.

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In the late 1960s, when I was a school boy in Germany, I remember that the evening news, along with what was going on in Vietnam, often covered violence in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were always murdering each other in violent clashes, shootings and bombings. As a child, I could never understand why Christians would hate each other so much that they’d kill each other, year after year after year.

As a school boy in Bavaria I witnessed almost all my friends and school mates being Catholic. Everyone was Catholic in Bavaria, except a very few. Those who were not Catholic were called “die Evangelischen” which translates to our overall term “Protestant.” In a classroom of 30 to 40 students, there might be one or two Protestants, often none. We knew that, because there was mandatory religion class, where a religion teacher, usually a priest, would teach about religion. We had no choice but participate, except those kids that were Protestant. They were pulled out and went to some other study room, or had their own consolidated Protestant class, except there were so few of them in school that they would not be able to put  enough together to fill a classroom.

Bavarians were generally Catholic, and Protestants were the children of refugees. Refugees in Germany in the sixties always came from the east and were people who were displaced when the Russians closed in on Hitler in World War II. They spoke a very different dialect, so we could tell who they were, and they were usually Protestant.

As a kid, I never gave it much thought.

The book A Column of Fire deals with the subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century in Europe and particularly in England. Queen Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic, and Protestantism was against the law. Protestants were called heretics, and the inquisition, staffed by sadistic priests, had the power to accuse anyone of heresy, try them in “court” and burn them at the stake, if convicted. Accused heretics were tortured, like stretched until all four limbs were completely dislocated. Under such torture, most every accused person confessed to heresy, which ended the torture, but started the brutal execution, like being burned naked and alive while the public watched and the clergy looked on. Queen Mary, sometimes called “Bloody Mary” ordered hundreds of such executions of Protestants.

Reading about tortures, I also remembered that as a school boy, I once took a tour of the Regensburg Rathaus (the old town hall). One of the most memorable sights there was the Folterkammer (torture chamber).

I was in that torture chamber and was able to inspect the various implements. As a kid it didn’t affect me much, and I never thought about it. As it turned out, between the years 1533 and 1770, suspected sinners were asked to confess, and if they didn’t confess, they were shown the torture instruments, which I suspect made many of them change their minds. But the key point is, “freedom of religion” as we know it today, is a very recent invention, and just a few hundred years ago, in Germany, in England, and all over the world, if you lived in a predominantly Catholic country, the laws were such that if you were not Catholic, or if you worked against the church, you were a blasphemer or a heretic, and the punishment could easily be death, depending on the severity of the crime as determined by the inquisitor.

That does not mean only the Catholics were the barbarians.

When Queen Mary Stuart died, Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and professed herself to be a moderate. She said she didn’t believe that people should be killed for their religion. Yes, the country was Protestant, and Catholicism was outlawed, but at least you weren’t summarily killed for it. However, since the Catholics were obsessed with their right, they felt Elizabeth was illegitimate as queen, and they tried various plots to kill her and give the throne to Mary, Queen of Scots – you guessed it – a Catholic.

The church and politics were completely intertwined, and the pope, his cardinals and bishops had as much power as the nobility and wielded it with a brutal hand.

A Column of Fire plays in the fictional town on Kingsbridge about 200 years after World Without End. It starts in 1558 in Kingsbridge and ends in 1620. It follows the lives of various prominent Kingsbridge residents as they do the bidding of famous historical figures, like Queen Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, King Filipe in Spain, King Henri in France, Sir Francis Drake, and many other historical figures of the time. A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge trilogy, or the “Pillars Trilogy” as I have called it. You can read my other reviews here:

The Evening and the Morning – the prequel

Pillars of the Earth – book one

World Without End – book two

A Column of Fire – book three – this review

This is a historical novel about the Christian religion in its dark days. Reading it I am glad I live today, and I live in a country that prides itself of religious freedom – and I say that somewhat facetiously. Catholics and Protestants in the United States don’t kill each other (anymore), but I am not so sure whether all Jewish people and definitely Muslims in the United States today would agree that we have religious freedom. But if you want to learn first-hand what lack of religious freedom means, you should definitely read A Column of Fire.

I like Follett’s books because they make history come alive. It’s one thing to read in a history book that Martin Luther didn’t like what the Catholics were doing and wanted to reform the church, but the Catholics didn’t approve of that. That’s dry, that’s history lectures in school with no context. It’s another thing to be inside the head of a young woman in Paris who sells copies of the Bible in French or English, which were printed clandestinely, and the penalty for being discovered selling illegal books was death. Yes, the Catholic church banned bibles in languages other than Latin and the penalty for violating that rule was death. The Catholic church has, in all its history, actively worked on keeping the people uneducated, so it could wields its power over them and essentially extract money from them for its own enrichment. I may seem on a rant, and off topic now, against the Catholic church, but not really. A Column of Fire brings the power or the church in the 16th century to life in front of your eyes.

This is a very long book with 919 pages and it takes time to read. But it was time well-spent. I am now going to have to read a biography of Martin Luther, as I am embarrassed to say, I know only very rudimentary facts about him and his life and work. I need to fill in that blank. I have also concluded that I need to find a historical novel that plays during the crusades, another time in history that warrants better understanding, and I suspect I will learn more about atrocities committed by the church.

The third American colony was started in New England by the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620. It was in the context of the political structure in England described in A Column of Fire that these first pilgrims stepped onto the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and now I understand how and why that happened.

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In 1997, J.D. is a young boy living the Appalachians in Jackson, Kentucky. He is bullied by his peers and emotionally abused by his mother (Amy Adams), who is a druggie. His grandma (Glenn Close) rules the family.

When J.D. grows up he joins the Marines and later goes to law school at Yale on the G.I. Bill. He works very hard on getting his life together and breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education. He has a supportive girl friend in Boston and is looking forward to his life ahead, freed from the shackles of his hillbilly upbringing.

But things were never right back home, and when his mom is delivered to a hospital after a heroin overdose, he drives back to Southern Ohio to take care of her.

Hillbilly Elegy is a Ron Howard film, based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It was blasted by the critics and received only 26% on the Tomatometer, but surprisingly with an audience score of 86%. The critics call it terrible, trite, enforcing of stereotypes, deceiving with an Oscar-baiting narrative, an episode of Jerry Springer, and one of the worst movies of the year.

I disagree vehemently, I guess I don’t count as a critic, but audience. Glenn Close and Amy Adams are doing a remarkable job. J.D.’s grandma is a character made of real-life, below-middle-class people in rural America. I have known many people like that, and it took me home. J.D. is a smart boy who broke out of the cycle of poverty entirely by himself and the savvy counsel of his grandma. I found the movie educational and inspiring.

If you want to understand the soul and the plight of backwater America, watching Hillbilly Elegy is a treasure trove. It explains things.

Damn the critics. Watch this movie!

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Madame Rosa (Sofia Loren at age 85!) is an Auschwitz survivor who lives somewhere in a seaside city in Italy and runs a business taking care of the children of prostitutes. She reluctantly takes in a 12-year-old Muslim African orphan at the begging of her doctor, who is also the counselor for the Social Services Department that takes care of street kids.

Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is from Senegal, and is streetwise beyond his age. He robs strangers in the market, and he is a drug dealer under the wings of an adult gang lord. At first, as one would expect, he does not fit into Madame Rosa’s household, with the other kids who live there, and with the adults around him.

But Momo is smart and resourceful, and quickly he turns from victim to protector as he learns the hard lessons of life earlier than a 12-year-old should. As quickly as he calls Madama Rosa’s world his home and family, it starts crumbling around him.

The Life Ahead is in Italian with English subtitles. The director, Edoardo Ponti, is Sofia Loren’s son. The movie was made for Netflix during the 2020 pandemic.

The Life Ahead is completely carried by the two lead actors, Sofia Loren with her powerful presence, and the amazing talent of Ibrahima Gueye.

Here in America we are so inundated with our Hollywood movie formula, we’re not used to hearing other languages and exotic sound tracks, playing in locales that look foreign to us. The challenges of a 12-year-old black orphan from Senegal on the streets of a city in Italy are beyond our everyday comprehension. The movie may not present a culture clash for viewers in Italy, but in our American living rooms, they give us powerful jolts of realities we can’t even comprehend.

After the credits started rolling, I was mesmerized. I listened to the music until it was all done.

I owed it that.

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I have mentioned the movie Rambo: First Blood many times in this blog over the years. Just search for the keyword and you can find the various posts. The first time was all the way back in 2008, when I listed it as one of Three Timeless Movies. But I never gave it the honor of a review in all that time.

Rambo came out in 1982. It was based on the 1972 novel First Blood by David Morrell. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a returned Vietnam veteran who is drifting in the Pacific Northwest while looking for a buddy from he war. When he finally finds his home he learns that he had died of cancer a year before. Rambo learns he is the last survivor of his group of Green Berets, and he is devastated. He walks into the nearest town when the local Sheriff picks him up and immediately starts pushing him around. He eventually gets wrongfully arrested and abused by the small-town police force. Triggered by flashbacks of torture, his instincts take over, he overwhelms the untrained cops, and escapes the jail with nothing but the clothes on his back and a knife. As they chase him into the woods they quickly realize that they are not hunting him, he is hunting them.

Consistent with the cliché of what we’re expecting Rambo to be, we find a one-man army with nothing but a knife facing hundreds of local cops, state police, national guard and military all trying to contain him. One of the famous quotes of the movie is “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” And exactly that he does.

There is a lot of shooting and brutal attacks in the story, but despite his notorious reputation, Rambo doesn’t actually kill anyone in First Blood. He just severely wounds and disables many people trying to hunt him down.

After Rambo: First Blood in 1982, there were many sequels. Rambo does a lot of killing in those. The franchise went on with Rambo: First Blook Part II, which Reagan saw and was famously recorded saying “Boy, after seeing ‘Rambo’ last night, I know what to do the next time this happens,” which was picked up by microphones placed in his office for a television and radio speech in 1985 but not carried in the broadcast.

Rambo: First Blood, in my opionion, is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a good innocent hero versus very bad cops story, where the hero kicks ass, gets justice, but eventually goes out with a whimper and the audience gets to feel good.

All other Rambo movies that followed it are no comparison at all, not even in the same league.

I watched Rambo: Last Blood a couple of days ago, and that prompted me watch Rambo: First Blood again and finally write the review it deserves, 38 years after it first came out.

 

 

Here is a good summary and review on Reddit with some excellent comments.

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Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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The Two Popes is a dramatization of what happened in 2013, when Pope Benedict VI (Anthony Hopkins) was the first pope to resign in over 700 years. Benedict was a conservative and, in religious aspects, a hardliner. He was elected during a time when Catholicism was under immense internal pressure and change.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) would eventually become Pope Francis, Pope Benedict’s successor. But he didn’t know that in 2012, when he traveled to Rome to submit his request to retire. He was one of Pope Benedict’s harshest critics and an activist in the church.

The Two Popes tells the life story of Jorge Bergoglio through the framework of the conversations between the two men over two days in Rome. The unlikely pair of adversaries became friends, and the rest is history.

Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict, taught at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 1969, about the same time I was a school boy learning Latin in Regensburg. During one of my visits there a decade ago, when he was pope, I went to find his house in Pentling, right outside of Regensburg and just a few kilometers from the university. It’s an unassuming place, mostly behind a tall and grown-over wall of ivy and green. I never knew about him when he was active in Regensburg and later Munich as bishop, of course, and only studied up on him when he became der Bayerische Papst (the Bavarian Pope).

I am not a Catholic, and I am not a Christian, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Two Popes. Other than the doctrine and the thinking of Pope Benedict, I didn’t learn much about him. But I learned the entire history of Pope Francis, and while I have criticized him for many of the decisions he has made and the atrocities of the church that he has allowed to continue, I have gathered renewed respect for him through this movie.

And I feel solidarity: If I were pope, I would shun the red shoes too.

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The Stand is about a pandemic that kills almost everyone in the world.

I read this book shortly after it first came out in 1978. Then, in 1990, King reissued the “Complete and Uncut Edition” with extra chapters and some changes. I read it again the early 1990s.

I never did a review of the book. Now might be a great time to do so.

If you’d like to read up on details, check the Wikipedia page for the book here.

A modified strain of the flu (sounds familiar?) accidentally escapes a government lab in Texas. It kills almost everyone it infects. Far less than 1% of the population, for some unfound reason, are immune. This means that in any given city or community, there might be nobody or just one person left. Within just a few weeks, the entire country is a grave yard. Rotting corpses are everywhere, in every house and building. Cars run off the roads litter the highways, usually corpses inside. A few survivors eventually run into each other and small groups band together to eek out a life after “the flu.”

The story follows a group of people who start out in New England and make their way west, collecting straggling survivors as they go. They end up settling in Boulder, Colorado. However, as one might expect, there is also an “evil” group, with its own leader, and they congregate in Las Vegas. The epic struggle between good and evil is carried out by the fragments of humanity.

The Stand is King’s largest book. This is a monster, a work the size of War and Peace. However, it’s also, in my opinion, King’s best work ever, and one of my favorite novels of all time. There are some (very) long stretches of less than exciting mystical sections getting into the supernatural of the bad guys in the second half of the book, which I found tedious. But other than that, it’s riveting reading. King portrays a lot of unique and utterly memorable characters that have stayed with me for a lifetime, including the main characters of Stuart Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Nick Andros and the ever likeable feeble-minded Tom Cullen, “Laws, Yes!” As usual, King’s characters are deeply developed, very real and convincing. The Stand also introduced me to “Payday” candy bars, which I hadn’t known before. After reading The Stand, discarded Payday candy wrappers always bring back post-apocalyptic visions for me when I randomly encounter them.

I am writing this review as we just received the order by the governor of California to stay at home for the next month to fight the coronavirus pandemic. None of us have ever experienced anything like this before, yet here we are, and the unthinkable has happened.

Well, I have read The Stand before, and I saw how it can end. It’s not pretty.

If you find yourself with some extra time and nothing to read, I highly recommend The Stand.

 

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Movie Review: Parasite

Parasite made Oscar history:

Parasite is the film that took home the most awards at the Oscars 2020, winning four Academy Awards at tonight’s Oscars including Best Picture, Directing, International Feature Film and Writing (Original Screenplay). Not only that, but it also became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture.

Oscar.go.com

Of course, with this much attention on a film, we had to go back and see it. I had never seen a Korean film and while I  was afraid that the subtitles would get in the way, I was immersed within minutes and forgot about the whole foreign language thing altogether. I was in the movie all the way through.

The story is about two families:

The Park family is in Korean’s upper class. The father is an young entrepreneur and the head of his company. He gets driven to work by a chauffeur in his Benz. They live in an upscale neighborhood in an opulent, modern house that has won awards for its architecture. His wife is beautiful, pampered, overprotective of her children, and has obviously never had to worry about anything serious in her life, other than being a socialite, planning elaborate parties, and worrying about what her friends would think about her and her family. The teenage daughter is smart, worldly, and is getting tutoring in English. The little boy is a spoiled terror and the entire family is under his playful thumb.

The Kim family is on the other side of the spectrum of society. They live in a basement apartment in the seedy part of town. Their main living room window faces out into the alley at eye level, where drunks regularly urinate right in front of them. The father (Song Kang Ho, who is generally understood to be the top Korean actor of his generation) is a loser. He has no job, no prospects of work and seemingly no ambition beyond somehow cheating the system wherever he can, including mooching off the WiFi of the neighbors in the building. His obedient wife does what she can to support the family. The two of them have taught their kids well in the way of gaming the system. The son and daughter are early college-age but neither are enrolled, even though both are resourceful, smart, energetic and ambitious. They have learned their father’s way well. The family ekes out a living by folding cardboard pizza boxes from the flat delivered shape to a usable form by the cooks. And they can’t even get a simple task like that right, and end up with 25% rejection rate.

Through a fortuitous connection, and by his sister helping him forge a diploma, with their father’s admiration and blessing, the Kim son gets a job tutoring the Park daughter in English. While on the job, he learns that the family is looking for a new art tutor for the little boy.  He manages to install an acquaintance, who is, unbeknownst to the Park family, his sister. Within a short time, the entire Kim family is employed by the Park household as tutors, driver and housekeeper. The Parks have no idea that all their employees are one family. Except the little boy, when he notices that the driver and the housekeeper smell the same.

Under wealthy Korean homes there are often bunkers for protection from war and disaster induced by the North Koreans. The Parks apparently don’t know they have such a bunker below their basement. However, in that bunker lives a man who has been there for years. A parasite. And here is where it starts getting complicated.

Parasite portrays the income diversity of society and how the rich can afford to be oblivious to the real problems and needs of the people. The poor are forced to fight for every scrap, and they end up being hardworking, resourceful and creative in making a living. We feel the constant humiliation of the poor and unfortunate, and how they deal with this continuous pressure and struggle to overcome it.

The movie is 132 minutes long. At every turn there is a surprise. I never knew what would happen next. This is DEFINITELY NOT HOLLYWOOD.  The storytelling is superb, and the twists seem to never end. Even the last 30 seconds left me wondering what might happen next. When the credits finally rolled I wondered what had just happened. This was different than any movie I had ever seen. This was a glimpse of a culture I knew little about. I had just heard more spoken Korean in the last two hours than in my entire life before combined. And I felt I had just watched a great movie. The Oscars were deserved.

You should go and see it.

 

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Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. 
—John Quincy Adams
This book was presumably written by a senior Trump administration official, like a cabinet-level appointee, or somebody in a similar situation. The account is not favorable to Trump.

The book tells what it’s like to work inside the White House under Trump as a senior advisor or executive. Trump is shown as a completely unfit person for the presidency. He does not read, he has no interest in opinions other than those of himself, he seeks power and status for himself without regard to what is right for the country or its people. He uses his assistants until they somehow disagree with him, and then they become enemies. All his assistants start disagreeing with him within minutes of any direct interaction. It does not paint a good picture.

It is A Warning – and I mean it.

Trump promised during the campaign that he would eliminate the national debt within 8 years in office. He has done the opposite. The deficit is higher than ever in history, spending is out of control, higher than Obama’s and that  was one of the main points the conservatives had against Obama. Here is an excerpt that discusses spending:

Donald Trump was not interested in penny-pinching. He may try to project the image of a man working to save taxpayer dollars, and it’s true that he can be talked out of stupid ideas if they cost too much. But that’s not because he’s trying to save money so it can go back to the American people. He still wants to spend the money, just on things in which he’s personally interested, such as bombs or border security. Trump recoils at people who are “cheap.” Today he is sparing no expense on the management of the executive branch, spending so freely it makes the money-burning days of the Trump Organization look like the five-dollar tables at a Vegas casino. As a result, the budget deficit has increased every single year since Donald Trump took office, returning to dangerous levels. The president is on track to spend a trillion dollars above what the government takes in annually.

— Anonymous. A Warning (p. 100). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Here is another excerpt talking about spending and the budget.

Donald Trump has America back on the road to bankruptcy, an area where he has unparalleled expertise for a president of the United States. The small band of fiscal conservatives who remain in the Trump administration warned the president about the eventual dangers of his out-of-control spending addiction. In one such meeting, Trump reportedly said, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” I never heard him say those words, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. That’s how he thinks. What does he care if the federal government goes belly-up? By then it won’t be his problem.
–Anonymous. A Warning (p. 101). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Trump called the writer a traitor. Trump defenders called him a coward.

Both labels are not fair. Let’s just say the facts stated are true. Clearly, the two excerpts above do not tell us anything we don’t already know. The numbers don’t lie. Trump may not like the fact that someone inside his administration states these facts to the public, but treasonous it is not.

It’s simply the truth, simply facts.

There is obviously no way for a cabinet secretary to write such a book under his or her name and live another hour in the administration, and then not be crucified and smeared for life by Trump supporters in the public and the media. So in order to get this book out, it needed to be written anonymously. Usually I do not like it when writers post anonymous comments in my blog, or anywhere online, but I am making an exception in this case. This book contains valuable information that will help me make my decision when it comes time to vote.

And just because of this, I am going to quote a section at the end of the book that is the most important of the entire message, the Warning. Please read this carefully. If you do not end up  reading the book after this review, at least read this excerpt:

Nevertheless, the counterargument to my point will be strong if the Democratic Party nominates someone deeply out of touch with mainstream America. Then everything changes. If it’s one of the Democratic candidates preaching “socialism,” Trump’s fearmongering will still be persuasive. Republicans will argue that the other candidate, as president, would attack our free-market principles, tax us into economic recession, promote a thought-police culture of political correctness, fan the flames of identity politics, and bring government into our lives like never before. It will be a repeat of 2016. Compared to the leftward-lurching Democratic Party, Trump will seem friendlier to conservative ideals. Discussions about qualifications will give way to emotion and fear, and Trump’s reelection chances will rise.
Democrats reading this book know how high the stakes are. I implore you, if you want a majority of our nation to reject Donald Trump, you must show wisdom and restraint in selecting your party’s nominee. Resist the temptation to swerve away from the mainstream. Trust me. We flirted with extremes in the GOP during the last cycle, and look where it got us. If Democrats do the same, Trump will be that much closer to a second term and better equipped to convince Americans to stick with him. If, however, you nominate someone who campaigns on unity instead of ideological purity, you will have a sizable number of Republicans and independents ready to make common cause.
— Anonymous. A Warning (p. 246). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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This is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It shows Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag on July 20, 1969.

I was 12 years old then, old enough to think on my own and science-minded enough to sit up in the middle of the night (in Germany) in front of our TV at 3:56am local time when Armstrong made that famous first step onto the moon.

The movie Apollo 11 is a documentary of the moon landing, and as we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of this event, it is ever more significant. The entire movie is not narrated or filmed. It is entirely constructed of actual clippings, both video and audio, taken at the time, and put together in a coherent sequence that tells the awesome story in all its glory. There is a minimum of screen prompts, like “Day 3,” that keep the viewer oriented. Other than that, it’s all original material, and that makes the impact all the more powerful.

This is not a movie, but rather a documentary of humanity’s peaceful conquests, and it is told masterfully.

 

 

Now that I rated the movie, I have to add my own ruminations about the moon landings.

I am not sure exactly how all those people who were born after this, which is the majority of humanity, think about the moon landings. But I remember clearly reading science fiction in the 1960s when I was in awe of the immensity of the undertaking. I remember a world before humans reached another body.

50 years have now gone by. 77 percent of all people alive today were not alive when the first moon landing occurred. Another 12 percent of all people alive today were younger than age 12 at the time of the moon landing, and therefore probably do not have first-hand memories of the events themselves.

So a full 89 percent of the world’s population did not have the experience of sitting in front of the television that day, watching those grainy pictures from very far away.

I remember what I thought that day. I remember thinking that by the time I was “old” I’d be able to buy a ticket to take a vacation on the moon. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that by 1972, we’d stop going there, and by 2019, the United States is actually in a position where it does not have the technology to put a man into space, let alone onto the moon. I recognize that we’re on track to change that soon, with initiatives by SpaceX and Boeing for human-rated rockets underway and both within 12 months of realizing that goal.

Of the 12 men who ever walked on the moon, eight are now deceased. Only Buzz  Aldrin (age 88), David Scott (85), Charlie Duke (82) and Harrison Schmitt (82) are still alive as of today.

I would never have thought that a boy in South Africa (Elon Musk) who would not even be born for another two years after the summer of 1969 would be the one that would make it possible for the United States to launch humans into space in 2019, and who would have the vision to take them to the moon and Mars.

The collective will of our nation, and our species, to set goals beyond the next election cycle, has diminished and we are left at the whims of individual politicians with an outlook of a few years at a time. Real goals, like a space program that allows us to leave the planet, are achieved in decades of dedication and lifetimes of focus. Unless we figure that out soon, we might as well continue to ruin our planet and render it unlivable, with no way out.

Perhaps movies like Apollo 11 will inspire us to do more with our time than line our pockets and gratify our immediate urges and needs.

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It’s 1952 in the marshland in coastal North Carolina. Kya is six years old and the youngest of five siblings. They live in a shack in the swamp. Pa is a loser and a drunk, and he abuses and beats Ma and the kids. One day Ma just walks away and never comes back. One by one the older siblings also drift away. Pa sticks around for another four years, but is gone sometimes four or more days in a row, who knows where. Then one day, when Kya is about ten, Pa does not come back. She is completely abandoned and forced to raise herself and survive. Kya grows up as a feral child, known as the Marsh Girl, a mystery to the towns people.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel of Delia Owens, a zoologist and non-fiction writer. She is now 70 years old and this is her first novel. I found the work truly amazing for a first novel. I just finished reading a truly bad novel, which I rated as zero stars. From the first page of reading Crawdads I was drawn in and captivated by the excellent descriptions, the suspense, the story, and the characters. Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. It is a unique story about a set of characters we would not come across in our normal daily lives. It draws us into that life and environment until we become part of it. We feel the pain, the abandonment, the loneliness, and the longing of Kya as she grows up into a remarkable woman.

The book has all the elements needed: a strong story, unique characters, good and evil, suspense, challenge, pain, and an abundance of natural beauty all around with excellent descriptions.

When I was done with the book I went to the Amazon reviews and checked out out some of the 1-star ones, the people who didn’t like the book. Many thought it was unrealistic or unbelievable. Some, who were familiar with the North Carolina coast land said that the descriptions of the geography were not accurate. Some said that there are no crawdads in salt water marshes. Some said that the dialect used by the locals seemed somehow “wrong” or stilted or inconsistent. All those flaws may be real and factual, but none of them bothered me as I read the book.

I remember reading and feeling deep emotions all throughout, I shed quite a few quiet tears behind my glasses from time to time, and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. At the end, I didn’t want the story to be over.

It may have its flaws, it may be unrealistic, it may not be true to the local details, but it was a powerful book that left a strong imprint on me, one I will remember for a long time.

This is a book that deserves four stars from me.

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I always enjoy when I can relate to the location where a novel takes place, or when I can visit such a location. I have experienced this several times in recent years.

One was when I read the novel Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker. The story plays in Fallbrook, California, a town where I lived for almost 20 years of my life and raised my children. I knew many of the locations in the novel, including the streets, parks and some of the stores and businesses referenced.

The other was the book The Crazyladies of Pearl Street by Trevanian. This played in Albany, New York early in the last century. In 2013, when I read that book, I made regular trips to Albany on business and I actually went to see the locations and the actual address on Pearl Street where the protagonist lived. I took pictures of the empty lot that is there now.

Reading a novel and retracing the locations of the protagonists gives the story a special meaning and the feeling of the story sinks in much deeper than it would by just reading the book.

And so it happened with Stoner. I had never heard of the book, or the author for that matter. Then, last Sunday morning while waiting for a flight at the Admirals Club at the Dallas / Ft. Worth airport I received a text from a friend, a member of an informal “book club” is was “accidentally” pulled into, that the next book we were going to read was Stoner. Stoner – what – I texted back. What author? John Williams was the response, and two minutes later I had the book downloaded on my phone ready to read when I got on my flight. I stopped reading The Greatest Story Ever Told to squeeze in Stoner first.

In the next few hours reading into the book I found out that the entire story plays in Columbia, Missouri, most at or around the University of Missouri. William Stoner was born in 1891 on a Missouri farm. He grew up working with his father on their land. His parents had done nothing in all their lives but work the farm. They wanted a better life for their son, so they sent him off to college to study agriculture. The father’s hope was that after four years, the son would come back with a better bag of tricks and make the farming more profitable and rewarding. However, Stoner fell in love with English and literature, and unbeknownst to his parents, switched his major and eventually went through graduate school, got his doctorate and started teaching literature at the university. And that was Stoner’s life – except – things didn’t go so well for him.

His worst mistake and the one causing many other misfortunes that befell him later was that he married a truly awful woman. Edith caught the eye of the young instructor at a party and he was smitten by her beauty. Even though she showed no interest in him, he courted her and eventually proposed marriage. She accepted. And within a month of being married Stoner knew his marriage was a failure. Edith was the epitome of the worst possible woman ever to be married to. She was a loveless, self-absorbed, vindictive, morose and frigid person who obviously loathed Stoner. Why she married him we never figured out. But Stoner was a good man, with character, conviction, honor and a tendency for brutally hard work and commitment. So he dealt with his marriage. He spent pretty much his entire life sleeping on the couch in his living room. It was truly painful to witness.

Stoner lived to support his wife and their only daughter, Grace, who also grew up screwed up due to the terrible situation of her parents. He only found real love once in an affair with a young instructor at the university. Besides stolen hours in her apartment when they could manage it, they only got to spend 10 days together on a vacation, which was the single true happy time in both their lives.

Stoner is a remarkable book. It’s a story about nothing, and it’s a story about everything, about life, hard work, and academic life in an American university in the first half of the 20th century. It’s depressing to read and it made me think about my own life and my own decisions.

And here is the funny part: Remember I was at the airport when I bought the book. Guess where I was flying later that week?

Columbia, Missouri.

When I landed I was 86% through the book. So rather than going to the hotel from the airport, I got into my rental car and drove into town and spent a bit of time around the University of Missouri, just checking out where Old Stoner was supposedly teaching his courses all those years ago, and getting a sense of the locations. Of course, the college described in the book in 1910 is no longer. Now it’s a sprawling campus with many modern buildings from the 1970s vintage and thousands of students milling about. I did see some old buildings like those described in the novel, and most of those are now fraternity houses. like this one:

It was truly thrilling. I was on my way to Columbia, Missouri when I received the message to read a novel that plays entirely in Columbia, Missouri. I just finished it now, writing this review while I am still here, ready to leave in the morning.

I recommend you read Stoner by John Williams. I for one am richer having done so.

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[click to enlarge – you must]

The picture above shows Alex Honnold, the world’s most awesome rock climber, with El Capitan in the background, the world’s most awesome big wall.

All my life I was an avid hiker and mountaineer, but rock climbing has always scared me. I could never understand what possessed people to climb vertical walls. I was paralyzed by fear just thinking about it.

Then, at the age of 36, I bought shoes, a harness, a few carabiners, a chalk bag, and signed up for a class in technical rock climbing. I learned how to build anchors, to rappel, to belay and to climb.

Once you get off the ground just six feet on a vertical wall, and you look down, it looks far, and it is potentially deadly. You don’t need to go very high to forget all petty thoughts, all worldly problems or issues. You leave the entire “gross national product world” behind, and you focus on what really matters – the next foot or handhold.

Before making that reach, letting go with one hand to reach up to the next handhold, switching from four-point contact with the wall to a temporary three-point contact, you think about your harness and whether you remembered to double-back the buckle properly, you can’t remember if you locked the carabiner that ties into the rope. Could it have a hairline crack? You look down and check your figure-eight knot and make sure it’s done right. How old is that rope anyway? How about the anchor? Is it really going to hold if I fall?

Panic sets in. Hands start slipping. Time to make the reach. Go! Reach!

Whew. It worked. Next step.

Your mind is singly focused on nothing but you, your equipment and the wall.

I probably haven’t been on a rock wall 20 years now, but I still have a passion for the sport, and I have followed the career of Alex Honnold over the years. I have written about him a few times. Here is an example: Look, Ma, no Rope!

In June of 2017, Honnold finally completed his lifelong dream of doing something nobody has ever done before in the history of climbing: free soloing El Capitan, the hardest, most bad-ass big wall in the world. This put Alex on the pinnacle of the climbing world. This feat is celebrated as one of the greatest athletic achievements of any kind, and it sets an impossible standard: Perform perfectly, without a single mistake, for a 3,000 foot climb, or die. It stretches our understanding and appreciation of the human spirit and the power of mental concentration.

The movie is masterfully done. It chronicles Honnold’s life, and it builds the tension, so when we finally watch the climb itself, we are prepared for the various tight spots and challenges, and we sit at the edge of our seat. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a cliffhanger.

My palms started to sweat at the beginning of the movie, and my hands did not dry up until the closing credits played.

Free solo is a documentary you really, really should watch!

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